Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s ‘The Smell of Other People’s Houses’ is a small tour do force of how books allow you to slip effortlessly into other lives and feel right at home, even if those lives could not be more different from your own.
The lives and minds in this case are of a group of teenagers living in the harsh wilderness of Alaska in the seventies, inhabiting down-trodden Birch Park, which is frozen until May.
Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s truly captivating writing brings them right into our hearts.
Summers are spent fishing to help with food over winter. Shopping for clothes is rummaging through what’s been donated to the Salvation Army. Where a dream is to wear socks that have not already been worn underneath by someone else’s feet.
Four different stories are beautifully told. Four teenagers needing to be brave in different ways, growing up, finding a future, trying to escape the lives they have been born into – four stories to get wrapped up in and long for happy endings.
The story begins and ends with Ruth Lawrence, whose brief and early romance with a boy whose background is like another world, whose house smells like store-bought everything, brings excitement and the promise of change, but not the sort she was hoping for.
‘Ray let me know pretty quickly that he wanted a girlfriend who would sleep over, not one who just talked on the telephone late at night.’
And so Ruth must go on a long bus journey to live with nuns and find kind parents to adopt her child; a journey that also takes her back into the past of her own family.
Hank and his brothers are running away and when one is feared lost at sea, the adventure turns into a nightmare.
Alys longs to dance. It might be her way out of Birch Park, but as she spends only a few weeks at sea in the summer fishing with her father, how can she tell him she wants to cut the visit short and seek a life that will take her even further away from him?
Dora loves the time she is spending living with her best-friend’s family to avoid her own, but now she lives in less fear of her father, but has started to fear not being allowed to stay forever.
We are soon alive to their small human hopes, their big dreams and challenges, how they are already shaped by personal histories and families. And how the transformative smell a mother might bring to a different home or the smell of fish guts and blood might give rare comfort in this novel whose texture is of the ice and the sea.
The adult characters make decisions whether to be kind, be helpful, or take the easy way out and spend time and money with their friends at the bar. Will these spirited young people succeed in being able to break out of the traps they were born into?
As the stories begin to collide, the ties that bind communities together are tested and lives slowly and satisfyingly transform. The four stories become entangled to produce an outstandingly classy read. One that will take you on an emotional rollercoaster and will definitely melt your heart.